“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”
When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.
But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.
I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.
Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations. And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.
However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.
The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.